Do Pantry Food Expiration Dates Matter?

How many times have you stared at the date stamped on your can of beans or package of rice and wondered, “What does ‘best by’ mean and do my beans know it’s 29 days past this date?!”   Well, this happens to me often and I end up tossing food that is actually safe to eat.  Turns out, these dates are not as scary as they seem!

We typically see three types of dates stamped on our food products:

  1. Best By
  2. Use By
  3. Sell By

Interestingly, these labels do not have anything to do with the safety of the food (free of food-borne pathogens such as bacteria or viruses), but instead with the quality of the food.  Dates are not federally regulated. They are simply recommendations given by the food manufacturer to indicate that the product will look, taste and smell as intended. 

So, what do these labels mean?

Best if used by/before:

This date indicates that the product will look, taste and smell as it should if used by the date stamped on the package.  If it is used after this date, the product may not be up to the manufacturer’s best standards.  It does not mean that the food has spoiled or is not safe to consume.

Use by:

This date is very similar to the “best if used by/before” label. However, this label indicates that the food product’s quality may decline quickly and the safety may be lessened after the date stamped on the package.  This is typical for acidic foods such as canned tomatoes or fruit.  For example, a can of beans may say “Best by 2/22/22” and a can of diced tomatoes may say “Use by 2/22/22”.  In this case, because of the acidic tomatoes, they should be consumed soon after, if not by, the date stamped on the label.  The beans, as long as they have not been opened and have been stored in a cool, dry place with no damage to the can, will most likely last longer than the date stamped on the label. 

Sell by:

This date is actually provided by the store and usually pertains to meat and dairy items.  It lets a store know how long a product has been sitting on the shelf.  After that “sell by” date has passed, the store will pull it from the shelf.  It does not mean that it is unsafe to eat after the “sell by” date. 

What should we concerned about? 

We should be concerned about how to store pantry items once we get them home.  Cans and packages that are left sealed in their original packaging can last well beyond their “best by” date and be safely eaten.  Once opened, it’s a whole different ball game!  Canned goods that have been opened should be transferred to an airtight container and stored in the refrigerator no longer than 3 – 5 days.  Keep in mind that this pertains to non-animal products (grains, beans).  Animal products (tuna, condensed milk) should be kept in the refrigerator for only 1-2 days. 

Other pantry items such as flours, grains, dried beans, nuts and seeds that have been opened should be stored in an airtight container and kept in a cool, dry place.  If these products are put back into their original packaging and not sealed properly, they may not make it to their “best by” or “use by” date. 

Another important thing to keep in mind are foods rich in natural oils such as nuts and seeds.  These wonderful oils can go rancid if stored for too long – especially if the product is ground into a meal or flour.  Take flax, for example. Whole flax seeds can be stored according to their “best by” or “use by” date, but once the seed is broken open, the natural oils are exposed to oxygen and then can become rancid.  Because of this, it may be best to store nuts and seeds in the refrigerator if they will not be consumed within a few months.  The same goes for grains.  If you are not getting through that 5 lb. bag of whole grain rice that you bought in a few months, go ahead and store that in the refrigerator or freezer so it will last longer.  No need to worry about the taste once it’s cooked – it will be just fine!

These tips should make you feel a little more comfortable about consuming canned or packaged foods that have been lingering in your pantry for a while.  Plus an added bonus – this helps us reduce food waste.  So next time you see a good sale, stock up!  Remember, pantry staples are the key to putting together some of the most healthy and nutritious meals!

For more information, check out the links below to learn more about food product dating and great ways to store pantry staples.

Michele DiCristofaro, MS, RD, LDN

What do the dates on food labels actually mean?
Food Product Dating
How to Store Nuts and Seeds
Storing Whole Grains
Shelf Stable Food Safety
Store It


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